A few months ago, I mentioned in passing the new Aberdare ‘super school.’ This 1,600-pupil monster will replace three of the town’s existing secondary schools when it opens (eventually) in September. While flicking through the very back of this week’s Cynon Valley Leader, I think I’ve found out what’s going to happen to one of the present buildings.
With this in mind, I’ve had a look at Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council’s own website. In the section on Environment and Planning, I learned that the ‘Former Girls School’ (which doesn’t actually close for another month) is a Grade II Listed Building. RCTCBC themselves give this handy summary of the listing system:
Grade I and II* listed buildings are a small proportion (about 6% nationally) of all listed buildings. They are particularly important to the nation’s built heritage as buildings of outstanding architectural or historic interest. The remaining buildings are listed Grade II and represent an important part of our built heritage which is given special protection.
Here’s what the editor of the Buildings of Wales books, the renowned architectural historian John Newman, has to say about it:
ABERDARE GIRLS’ COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL, Gadlys Road. Built as the Higher Standard Schools 1905–7, and a tour de force by the local architect, Thomas Roderick. Brown, coursed and squared, rock-faced Pennant sandstone lavishly dressed with red Wilderness ashlar. The architect had to cater for both boys and girls, so he laid out two identical sets of classrooms each clustered around a hall, and thrust forward between them a pompous tower, octagonal and somewhat top-heavy under its two-stage lead-covered cap, concave below, ogee above. The plan is dramatized by the shaped gables over every classroom and both halls. Huge, round-headed hall windows flanked by bullseyes. Smaller bullseyes over the two entrances. Internally, the glass partitions survive which allowed the head teachers in the central halls to oversee the pupil teachers in the surrounding classrooms (Newman, 1995: 135-6).
Fortunately for me, the beer garden of The Glandover Arms overlooks the school. On Saturday evening I called in for a pint and used their vantage point to add some more photos to my ongoing (never-ending?) Vanishing Valleys project.
Less than five minutes up the road from the Girls’ School, another old school also caught Mr Newman’s eye. Bear in mind that he was writing twenty years or so ago. This photo was taken by the photography pioneer J. Lendon Berry, who captured many of Aberdare’s buildings in the late Victorian era.
TECHNICAL AND INTERMEDIATE SCHOOLS (now District Council Offices), Gadlys Road. Designed by J.H. Phillips of Cardiff, who won a competition in 1892, and dated 1896. Central single-storey hall towards the road, crowned by a pair of shaped gables, of rock-faced Pennant sandstone with grey Forest dressings, and, behind, a row of simply gabled classrooms with dressings of yellow brick. Master’s house of 1896 to the l., also by Phillips. To the r. a two-storey block carrying at the angle a whimsical clock-turret with Arts and Crafts detail. This part is dated to 1901. Presumably Phillips, who tended to whimsy, was responsible (Newman, 1995: 136).
Architecture enthusiasts should look away now. There’s hardly anything left of it, apart from the two-storey block. The clock was removed in broad daylight one afternoon about ten years ago, and turned up in a scrapyard in Llanelli. Somebody spotted it there, alerted the Cynon Valley Leader, and it was eventually restored to its rightful place.
The rest of the building was torn down, and there are now houses on the site. I suspect that the Girls’ School will meet the same fate once it’s sold off.
Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC doesn’t have a great track record of preserving our built environment. Quite a number of years ago, I was able to get my hands on a full list of the Listed Buildings within the county borough. It was kicking around in the reference section of Aberdare Library, and I photocopied it for my own records. The report was produced by CADW, the body charged with the care of Wales’ historic buildings, and dated January 31, 1997.
It ran to nine closely-printed pages, with nearly two hundred entries. As well as the obvious candidates in Aberdare, such as St John the Baptist’s Church, there were a number of oddities and curiosities; who would have imagined that the ‘Telephone call box on the pavement outside the Palladium Cinema, Canon Street’ would merit a mention? Then again, the whole of the town centre was designated a Conservation Area some years ago, so I suppose classic street furniture would be included in that overall category.
[A digression: I’d left my own copy of the report at home on Friday, so I asked Denise, the new reference librarian, whether it was still around. She hunted through the shelves for a while before we concluded that it had probably been binned. It was nearly two decades old, after all. She did find a recent printout from a website, but I explained that I was looking for buildings which wouldn’t appear on a recent report.
On Saturday I called in to do a bit more work on this entry, and Denise very kindly brought me a letter which was dated 10 June 1982. She’d carried on looking after I left on Friday, and turned up this piece of correspondence in the archives. It had been sent to a man in Aberdare by the Planning and Amenities Section of Cynon Valley Borough Council, in response to his query about ‘Listed Buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments’ in the area. At the time, there were only eleven listed buildings, and about twice as many Ancient Monuments. It seems that, after its formation in 1984, CADW realised what a wealth of Victorian and Edwardian architecture was on offer in the Valleys.]
A lot can change in two decades. Here’s what Mr Newman had to say about one of the three Grade II listed buildings in Mountain Ash:
MESSRS NIXON WORKMEN’S INSTITUTE, LIBRARY AND PUBLIC HALL, Oxford Street. One of the most splendid of all the workmen’s institutes in the Valleys, and surely worth saving from its present sorry state of dereliction. Built in 1898–9 for £8,000 to the designs of Dan Lloyd of Aberbeeg. In essence Wren-style, but with many idiosyncratic variations. Yellow brick. Doric pilasters of red brick carry a triglyph frieze across the facade, and continue without it around the sides. Segment-headed windows below, long round-headed ones for the piano nobile and a bullseye window in the pedimental gable. The central pedimented doorway is the real showpiece, enriched with terracotta glazed and unglazed, red, yellow and even blue. Erected at the expense of the workmen of Nixon’s Navigation Collieries, to provide for their mental and physical recreation. It provided on the one hand a library, reading and lecture rooms, and a theatre seating 1,500, and on the other billiards and other games rooms and a gymnasium, with in the basement a swimming pool 54ft (16.45 metres) long (Newman, 1995: 453–4).
Noble sentiments, I’m sure you’ll agree – but sadly the Nixon’s Institute didn’t prove ‘worthy of saving from its present sorry state of dereliction’. On my photocopy of the CADW list, the handwritten word ‘DEMOLISHED’ appears next to the relevant entry.
According to the Cynon Valley Leader (10 July 2014), a fire one night in 1994 gutted the building, and it was demolished soon afterwards. The current ‘Nixon’s Institute’ is a small single-storey clubhouse adjacent to the plot where its predecessor once stood. There hasn’t been any attempt to utilise the vacant land. Even so, the Nixon’s still features in one of RCTCBC’s ‘heritage trails’. Good luck with finding it!
A fire can usually take care of other inconvenient buildings, too. Take this one in Aberaman, just a mile or so south of Aberdare, which was totally destroyed on 30 October 1994.
PUBLIC HALL AND INSTITUTE. 1907–9 by Thomas Roderick & Son, at a cost of c.£7,500. One of the towering workmen’s institutes which mark the Cynon Valley, of red brick with stone dressings. The façade is quite a sophisticated five-bay composition. Pedimented doorways in the three wide bays, those at the side leading to the hall, the central one to the library and institute. Polygonal full-height shafts frame the two narrow bays. Large central mullioned window in two parts, rectangular below, semicircular above. Broad shaped gable to crown all (Newman, 1995: 129).
There’s a funny story about this. I was on the bus home from work the day after the fire. A chap boarded at the Kingsway stop in Cardiff and asked Dai Gough, the regular driver, for ‘A single to Aberaman Hall’.
Dai replied dryly, ‘You’ll be lucky.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ll see,’ Dai said.
When we arrived opposite the smouldering remains of the hall, Dai (and the rest of us) just laughed at the stunned expression on the chap’s face.
There’s nothing left except a small stone monument on the site.
Let’s look a few miles to the south again now, and focus on Abercynon. Here was an example of the workmen’s hall par excellence, which you couldn’t fail to see as you drove off the A470 and into the town. It even featured on the front cover of Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980, by Kenneth O. Morgan (the 1982 Oxford University Press paperback edition), in a stunning photo by Colin Molyneux.
When I was working in Blackwell’s Bookshop at the Polytechnic of Wales between 1989 and 1991, my friends John and Lorna moved to a flat in Abercynon. They called into the shop one day to show me what was pretty much the view from their bedroom window, on the front of a textbook on our shelves. With the pithead gear in the foreground and the narrow terraced houses stacked up on the hillside, it was a picture of the quintessential Valleys community.
WORKMEN’S HALL AND INSTITUTE, Mountain Ash Road. Dated 1904. The building dominates the whole settlement from its steeply sloping site, four-storeyed in front, but only two-storeyed to Edward Street at the back. Polychromy of blue Pennant sandstone, red brick and white Portland stone. Finialed gable ends (Newman, 1995: 131).
Abercynon Workmen’s Hall was demolished in 1995 – just about the time that Mr Newman’s book hit the shelves. It’s a shame that his readers won’t have had the chance to see this architectural wonder for themselves.
It’s perhaps a little odd that Mr Newman didn’t have anything to say about the Palladium Bingo Hall in Aberdare, which I mentioned in Television Killed the Variety Star. Maybe he’d grown tired of writing about neo-Classical façades by the time he got to it. It’s a good thing, really, as all that remains at the time of writing is an empty space in the heart of Aberdare town centre. For some reason, the Palladium wasn’t included in the Listed Buildings report. I doubt whether it would made much difference anyway. Simply being in a Conservation Area wasn’t enough to save it from the bulldozer a fortnight ago. Not even the frontage survived. (Note the phone box and pillar box – both of which are Grade II Listed, as I mentioned earlier.)
Mr Newman does mention a building which many people in Aberdare will probably miss when they’re walking around. It’s tucked away beside the Black Lion Hotel, and its most obvious sign is the roof, overlooking the houses which surround it. The slates have been stripped off, of course, and only the timbers remain visible.
BETHANIA CHAPEL, Wind Street. (Disused) The siting is unusual, back from the street up a flight of broad steps. Built in 1853–4 by Evan Griffiths of Aberdare, but rebuilt in 1884. Pennant sandstone façade with a giant recessed arch rising into the pediment. Triple windows within it. Tall, narrow flanking windows related to the galleries inside. Note the blazing bible carved over the door (Newman, 1995: 134).
In spite of appearing on the Listed Buildings schedule in 1999, and on RCTCBC’s own database in 2014, Bethania has been allowed to fall into a sorry state. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that you can walk past it without knowing it’s there.
Staying with chapels for the time being, my home area of Trecynon was once peppered with these massive stone edifices. In Mr Newman’s words, ‘they give a vivid indication of the vigour of C19 Nonconformity in the Valleys’.
In this day and age it’s hard to credit the sheer size of these buildings. The large-scale Ordnance Survey map from 1868 details the capacity of each building: Unitarian Chapel [Hen-Dy-Cwrdd], seats for 800; Ebenezer Chapel, seats for 800; Baptist Chapel [Heol-y-Felin], seats for 800; Bryn Sion Chapel (Calvinistic), seats for 500. Compare those figures to the parish church, St Fagans (1852–4, rebuilt 1856 after a fire), which accommodates about 350, and you’ll see how the population exploded in a few decades.
Hen-Dy-Cwrdd was founded in 1751, although the chapel of that name is a later structure. Some years ago I had a letter printed in the Cynon Valley Leader, drawing attention to its neglected state. I’m pleased to say that that it’s since been renovated, and now bears a blue plaque as testament to its importance in the history of the Cynon Valley.
HEN-DY-CWRDD UNITARIAN CHAPEL, Alma Street. In spite of its modest appearance, with bargeboarded gable and only the central pair of windows arched, this is historically the most significant of Trecynon’s chapels. A meeting house was established here in 1751. Rebuilt 1862-3 by Evan Griffiths jun. (Square interior galleried on three sides, the deep gallery fronts moulded, the cast iron columns with acanthus capitals) (Newman, 1995: 137).
Just around the corner from Hen-Dy-Cwrdd are two more chapels which have entered the third millennium in quite different conditions. In Mount Pleasant Street, Noddfa Baptist Chapel has been converted into a spacious modern house.
Less than a hundred metres along the road you come to Ebenezer. I’ve got fond memories of this place, as it was where we held our carol concerts when I was in school. I’m sad to say that time has not been as kind to this one. The dwindling congregation meant that the existing building was far too big, so a couple of years ago the old hall opposite was adapted into Ebenezer Newydd. The chapel has been on the market for some time, but there seems little sign of any progress. There’s a load of debris stacked up outside, so it’s anyone’s guess what will become of it next. (See Fire Down Below).
EBENEZER CHAPEL (Independent), Ebenezer Street. The dates 1811 and 1829 on a worn stone in the porch relate to earlier chapels on the site. The three upper windows of the the façade, with Corinthian pilasters, belong to a building of 1852 heightened in 1874–5. Memorable porch, closed to l. and r., open in the centre, all projecting under three equilateral gables faces with red terracotta rosettes. This is an addition of 1902. Marbling in the centre bay. Showpiece interior of 1902, the galleries round all four sides, the pulpit and ‘big seat’ all elaborately fretted and decorated with ebony pilasters. Splendid ceiling plasterwork, two huge roses encircled by rosettes. The architects for the work done in 1902 were Owen Morris Roberts & Son of Porthmadoc, Gwynedd (Newman, 1995: 137).
Finally, let’s return to the southern end of Trecynon. Tucked away behind the clock-turret of the old school, Mr Newman found two chapels virtually opposite each other.
GADLYS CHAPEL, Railway Street. (Disused.) Dated 1864. Rendered front crowned by a pediment carried on four Ionic pilasters.
BETHEL CHAPEL, Railway Street. (Disused) Dated 1860. Quite an elaborately designed façade, though rendered. Central round-headed doorway in a channelled, concave surround. Big semicircular window in the pedimented gable similarly treated. Full-height channelled quoins and full-width dentilled cornice moulding. (Elaborate interior of c.1900, comparable with the interior of Ebenezer Chapel) (Newman, 1995:136).
Gadlys Chapel was subsequently converted into flats. Bethel was demolished to make way for a large new house. (This undated photo was one of the very first entries in my Vanishing Valleys portfolio.)
Finally, I want to mention two huge buildings in the heart of Aberdare, which have been allowed to fall into disrepair. They stand at opposite sides of Victoria Square, and there’s currently no sign of life in either of them. They’re arguably among the most eye-catching buildings in the town centre, but are both little more than eyesores at present.
The website British Listed Buildings still records them as Grade II. At the moment, though, they’re hardly the sort of features which will get tourists and architecture enthusiasts flocking to Aberdare. Indeed, like so many other grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings, they seem to have been totally abandoned by their owners. Perhaps a decade or so down the line they’ll go the same way as the Palladium.
I’m talking about two former pubs which face each other across the central part of town: the Boot Hotel and the Black Lion Hotel.
The Boot was closed after a man’s body was found upstairs a few years ago. (He was a mate of mine, I’m sad to relate.) The Black Lion fizzled out at about the same time, after going downhill steadily for a few years. Neither of them show any signs of reopening, even though a number of local pubs have successfully bucked the trend.
I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the Black Lion, or the reason why it’s been abandoned for so long. However, I do know that it seems little short of criminal for the owners of these enormous buildings to let them simply rot away under everyone’s noses. Then again, that seems to be the general fate of so many of the buildings which Mr Newman enthused over in his survey of our county. In this age of austerity, with no public or private money available for their upkeep, I suspect the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.
I’ll let Mr Newman have the last word on Aberdare, in his inimitable style:
The obvious place to start [a perambulation of Aberdare] is by the granite WAR MEMORIAL, 1923 by F.H. Morley of Durham, at the foot of VICTORIA SQUARE. The square retains its early Victorian appearance, surrounded by three-storeyed stuccoed frontages. At the top of the slope the BLACK LION HOTEL, late Georgian in character, its cast iron porch set in front of Ionic pilasters flanking the entrance doorway. Three timber bay windows, their mullions with lotus caps. The hotel forms a backdrop to the STATUE of Griffith Rhys Jones (‘Caradog’), conductor of the South Wales Choral Union, baton in hand. 1920, signed by W. Goscombe John (Newman, 1995: 139).
Newman J. (1995) The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan. (Harmondsworth: Penguin.)